Jean-Christophe Maillot has subverted the rules of classical ballet to be more faithful to Romeo And Juliet, writes Kelly Apter
SEEING something through the eyes of a child can be illuminating, as choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot discovered many years ago, when he took his six-year-old daughter to the theatre.
“It was a traditional version of Romeo And Juliet,” recalls Maillot, “and during the fight scene she started to laugh. I tried to understand why, and it was because seeing those dancers with swords somehow felt a bit ridiculous. She laughed because it reminded her of herself playing with her cousins.
“The worst bit was at the end, when Juliet was dying en pointe – my daughter really couldn’t believe that. And I realised, do we only make dance for people who know about ballet, or do we need to connect with people who don’t have that knowledge?”
Director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo for the past 20 years, Maillot has spent a lot of time pondering that question. When I meet him at Northern Ballet’s headquarters in Leeds, he’s clearly still as excited by the proposition as he was at the start of his career.
Hearing Maillot talk about ballet in general, and his Romeo And Juliet in particular, is fascinating – but it’s in the studio that he really comes into his own. After six weeks of rehearsal, the dancers of Northern Ballet are looking great technically, but still getting to grips with Shakespeare’s characters.
For Maillot, emotional intent is king, prompting him to regularly jump out of his seat to demonstrate. One minute he’s embodying the Nurse, the next Juliet or Tybalt. Each character has its own set of emotions, and helping the dancers find something to relate to is crucial.
“Yesterday, the boys were doing the fight scene,” he explains. “And I said to them, ‘You perform the movement very well, but I just don’t feel that you hate each other. So can you take a minute to think about somebody that you don’t like, then put a mental picture of that person in front of the dancer you’re looking at?’ And it changed so much.
“I ask the dancers to have text in their brain when they do something, because I don’t think you can have the right reactions otherwise. But Shakespeare might be too abstract for them, so I try to connect them with their own life. Because that makes the movement come alive, and makes it more interesting for an audience.”
The ballet world has no shortage of Romeo And Juliets, and Maillot had no desire to re-invent the wheel when he created this work, originally for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in 1996. Yet with a training and performance career steeped in classical ballet, his love for the artform remains true.
So while Maillot’s approach is different (minimal set and props) his choreography remains entertaining and utterly accessible, and his choice of music – Prokofiev’s stunning score, played live by the Northern Sinfonia – keeps the ballet rooted in tradition. But when it comes to narrative, Maillot has viewed Shakespeare’s play with an almost filmic eye.
“I think everybody knows the story of Romeo And Juliet, so there was no point telling it again in a simple, narrative way,” he says. “And I realised that Friar Laurence is actually the one who’s responsible for the whole drama. If he didn’t have this strange idea to put Juliet asleep, and if he’d had time to tell Romeo, the drama wouldn’t happen.”
When the curtain rises, it is Friar Laurence we meet first – a man riddled with guilt about the deaths he unwittingly caused. From there, we see the entire ballet played out as his reflection on what took place.
“I was wondering which character at the end of the story would feel the worst,” says Maillot. “And I think he’s the one who will be thinking, ‘What went wrong?’ And the culpability that he will carry forever will make him think again about what happened.
“So everything is built around his memory, and I think it’s interesting to give people a chance to see the story from a different angle.”
Guilt and suffering may be the overriding emotions of Friar Laurence, but elsewhere it’s love that Maillot is at pains to communicate. During rehearsal, he stops and starts the powerful moment when Romeo and Juliet first make eye contact over and over. Although only a few seconds long, he’s determined that the exchange will help the audience feel a connection.
“I love the idea that when you see the balcony scene, you remember what it felt like to fall in love when you were 15,” says Maillot, “when your heart was beating so fast as you were getting close to that person, and how much you felt in your whole body when the side of your hand touched theirs. It’s those little things I think we can transmit to an audience.”
At times like that, everyone in the auditorium will be watching Romeo and Juliet as they drown in each other’s eyes. Much of the time, however, our attention will pass from one character to the next as we absorb the action. This is something Maillot is acutely aware of – and he makes sure the dancers are too.
“Every dancer has a real responsibility to the story,” he says. “So that if somebody in the audience decides to follow one of them in a street scene or at the ball, they can be satisfied by what that character is telling them. No dancer is ever just a green plant that you put there to make the stage look pretty.”
Not that there is foliage of any description in Maillot’s production. A plain but dramatic white set is the backdrop for the action. As for the swords Maillot’s daughter found so amusing all those years ago, they too have been banished. Mercutio and Tybalt find different ways to die. His daughter’s scepticism about Juliet dying en pointe has also been dealt with.
“I consider pointe shoes a natural prolongation of a woman’s legs as a dancer,” says Maillot. “But I’m not making a point about going en pointe. I go up there because there’s something more graceful about it. So that’s why Juliet is en pointe in the first act – but by the third act she’s completely barefoot. Because in the third act something happens that has much more to do with strength, heaviness and sadness. The fact that she can feel the floor beneath her is a necessity. And just to answer my daughter – Juliet cannot die with pointe shoes.”
When Maillot talks about his choreography, it feels almost secondary (it shouldn’t – it’s beautiful). What is fundamental to him is keeping it real, and answering the question about who he’s creating for – ballet aficionados or everybody.
“That was the starting point for Romeo And Juliet in 1996, and most of the work I’ve done since,” he says. “How to combine a kind of realism in the way that people walk, kiss, look at each other, with a dance where the choreography will almost disappear.
“So at the end of the balcony scene you might not remember a step or a specific lift – but you might remember how much they were in love.”